Sign Pollution

This week I was on the road in Ohio. It was a week of gray, rainy weather, so my mood wasn’t great. Still, I was struck by how ugly our state looks from the perspective of our interstates, due in significant part to the overabundance of signs that line the highways.

IMG_1891We’ve got a sign pollution problem. Speed limit signs and traffic alert signs. Signs stating that you need to wear your seat belt because it’s a state law. Signs unnecessarily announcing “caution overhead hazard” when there is a bridge looming immediately ahead. Signs advising that fines are doubled in work zones, mile markers, “no edge lines” signs, exit signs, rest area signs, “emergency stopping only” signs, signs listing every fast food outlet, gas station, and hotel at the exit that is approaching, signs warning that bridges ice over before roadways, merge markers, and electronic billboards about missing adults, among countless others.

Ohio may not have the striking scenic beauty of, say, the Grand Tetons or the coastline at Big Sur, but the rolling farmland is pleasant — if you could see it without all of the ugly, institutional signs that seemingly appear every 100 yards or so. (And don’t even get into how much those signs cost.)

When I was a kid, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson launched an “America the Beautiful” campaign that sought to minimize the number of billboards on highways and their ability to block the view of the countryside. There also was a powerful commercial featuring “Iron Eyes” Cody as a proud native American who sheds a tear at the trash thrown from a passing car, which made me into a lifelong opponent of littering. Ironic that now it’s our government, with its zeal to post signs for every conceivable reason, that is the offender.

Needing To Purge Over The Urge To Merge

I took my driver’s ed class with Mr. Pfeil.  He was a phys ed teacher, and for him driving consisted of certain clear, immutable rules of conduct.

IMG_2152The problem is that most people don’t know what to do when they have the urge to merge.  Mr. Pfeil would tell you that merging is easy:  you look over your left shoulder, gauge traffic flow, select an opening, and accelerate smoothly into that opening.  Of course, almost no one does that anymore.  These days, it’s far more likely that you’ll run into one of these irksome merging techniques:

The sidler — The sidler relies entirely on pity.  Rather than picking a spot and taking decisive action, he will sidle alongside the traffic flow, hoping that some good Samaritan will wave him in.  If no good Samaritan appears, he jams on the brakes at the end of the on ramp and makes an wild, thrashing arm-in-the-air gesture.  Good luck with that “smooth acceleration” approach if you are behind the sidler!

The magic elf — This driver typically can barely see over the steering wheel, is about 97 years old, and is driving a car built in the 1950s.  He apparently is convinced that his turn signal has some mystical power, and so long as the turn signal is on an opening in traffic will magically appear to accept his vehicle.  This guy inevitably shows up when you are in the traffic flow, drifting casually into  your lane with his turn signal blinking.

The ball buster — The ball buster drives an oversized pickup truck and probably just left his appointment at a low testosterone treatment clinic.  He barrels down the on ramp at top speed, jams into the traffic flow at his whim, and makes rude gestures while he is doing so.  He figures his truck is going to come out on top in any collision, so what the heck?

I wish more of my fellow drivers had taken Mr. Pfeil’s class.

On The Road To Vancouver

This morning we drove from Whistler to Vancouver, to spend the day before heading home.  It’s a very scenic drive, with craggy mountains, rushing streams, and crashing waterfalls all visible from the windows of your car.  Even a highway rest area — which is where I took this picture — features lovely views.

This is just a very pretty corner of the world.

Zen, And Driving To Cleveland On A Rainy Thursday Morning

I left our house at 6:30 a.m.  The sky was bleak, clouds masked the moon and stars, and it was raining steadily. Street lights shone on rain-slick roads as I navigated I-270 and then took the I-71 North off-ramp.  From there, it is a straight shot to Cleveland.

The rain beat on the roof of my car.  Spray from tractor-trailers I passed coated my windshield in the glare of the headlights from the approaching cars heading south.  The windshield wipers slapped at their normal, mind-numbing rhythm, and thunked when turned to top speed to deal with the grimy splatter from trucks.  I tried to find a decent radio station.

The cold, wet, and unremarkable Ohio countryside scrolled past, outside my warm and dry interior automobile cocoon.  My God, I could be anywhere — and anytime!  I’ve driven this same bland stretch of road hundreds, probably thousands, of times, and it has not changed.  Concrete overpasses, green signs, field trees and scrub bushes long the highway corridor, the occasional barn and house in the distance — and then the garish lights of gas station signs and McDonald’s arches at the next exit.

The miles roll by, and I reach a state of virtual mindlessness.  My higher brain has been emptied of conscious thought, and my lower brain is fully and happily occupied with the task of carefully steering the car toward my pre-programmed destination, making the hundreds of little decisions about speed and lane changes that driving requires.

As I approach the outskirts of Cleveland, I am struck by the genericness of it all.  There are two hours gone, never to be recovered.  And I know that, soon enough, I will repeat the same forgettable exercise again . . . and again.

Considering Ohio’s Highway Speed Limit

Ohio legislators are once again considering whether the speed limit on Ohio’s interstate freeways should be increased.  The issue is whether to raise the speed limit from the current 65 m.p.h. to 70 m.p.h.

The Ohio Highway Patrol would prefer that the speed limit stay at 65; it contends that higher speeds result in more accidents and more serious injuries.  Some legislators note, however, that the Ohio Turnpike recently increased its speed limit to 70, without an increase in fatalities.  In addition, the speed limit on rural freeways in neighboring Michigan, Indiana, and West Virginia also is 70 m.p.h.  Why should Ohio be different?

I spend a lot of time driving on I-71 and I-70, Ohio’s principal east-west and north-south freeways, and I’m supportive of a higher speed limit.  For the most part, the Ohio countryside is flat (and boring) and the freeways are straight.  We don’t have mountains or winding roads that might counsel in favor of lower speed limits.

There are always going to be drivers who ignore the speed limit, whatever it is, and drive as fast as they want.  For those drivers, the posted speed limit is meaningless.  Why not let the rest of us law-abiding drivers make better time when we are driving through the rolling farmland between Cincinnati and Cleveland?

Pondering A Seemingly Pointless Electronic Sign

Every day I drive to work on I-670, a road that connects the I-270 highway that circles Columbus with downtown.  A few years ago they erected an electronic road sign above the westbound lanes, the kind that lets some unknown person change the message on the sign if they choose to do so.  In that sense, it’s like the sign that talked to Steve Martin in the movie L.A. Story.

I don’t understand why someone concluded we need this variable sign.  Nine mornings out of 10 the sign reports that it will take exactly the same, minimal amount of time to reach I-71 and other upcoming destinations.  On the tenth day, the sign might state that it will take a slightly longer period to drive the mile and a half to the next exit.  Is there anything to indicate that that kind of information on the sign influences any driving decisions or helps traffic flow?  Does anyone actually veer off I-670 and onto side roads because the sign is advising that it will take two minutes longer to reach their destination?  And, how many of those people would have veered off after they observed slowed or stopped traffic up ahead, regardless of whether the sign was there or not?

One time Kish and I were driving past the sign and it was filled with information about a missing adult male who was driving a Mercedes with a particular license plate.  We wondered precisely what we were supposed to do in response to that message.  Quickly grab a paper and pen and jot down the license plate?  Hope that the car in question was driving directly in front of us when we saw the sign?  It hardly seems like sound traffic safety to have drivers of cars speeding by at 65 miles an hour fumbling for a pen and paper to try to write down a license plate number.  And if we aren’t supposed to do that, what’s the point?

I imagine a large part of the decision to buy the sign was that some people wanted Columbus to seem more like, well, L.A.  Guess what?  It isn’t — and most of us are very happy for that.  We don’t need signs to tell us how long it will take to get to an exit that is only a few miles away, and we don’t need pointless signs to consume tax dollars and clutter our highways.